Reading. Writing. Arithmetic. And Robots.
It was a big assignment for 10 Master of Science in Marketing (MSM) students in the MKT 898 Consulting Project class: “Help us better understand the U.S. education system.”
The request came from leading global consumer robot company iRobot, the creator of the popular Roomba. The Bedford, Massachusetts-based company already offers resources that focus on robotics and STEM education, including a build-your-own robot for teachers, students, and developers. But iRobot wanted more robust insights into U.S. education as a whole so it could begin to think about how technology might help K-12 teachers.
For Sawyer Business School students, this was a very different kind of assignment; usually the business problem is more narrowly focused. How can George Howell Coffee increase foot traffic into its flagship store? How can Roche Bros. become the preferred catering vendor in Downtown Crossing? For this project, however, iRobot wanted a deep dive into an “industry” that has 56.6 million students, 3.7 million teachers, and projected yearly expenditures in public elementary and secondary schools of $680 billion. As any educator will tell you, education is a complicated subject.
“At first the students—and the professors—were a little overwhelmed,” says Professor Pelin Bicen, chair and associate professor of Marketing. “It’s such a huge topic and kind of a vague assignment. We really had to help students figure out how to frame their approaches.”
Regardless of their tactics, one thing all of the students knew they needed to do was interview real teachers. So how to find them?
There’s an app for that. (Sort of.)
Vincent Benetreau, BSBA ’18, MBA/MSM ’19, moved to the United States from France when he was 18, which means he doesn’t know any American elementary school teachers. So he resorted to a different crowdsource option: the dating app Bumble.
He posted his profile, and when a young woman who happened to be a teacher connected with him through the app, he immediately explained the situation.
“I told her flat out that I wasn’t looking for a date but that I was a graduate student doing research on elementary education and wanted to interview her,” Benetreau says. “She was really nice about it, and we talked about the whole project over coffee. I learned a lot from her about how teachers and educators determine the curriculum in classes.”
Meghan Twombly, BSBA ’18, MSM ’19, took a different tack: She simply reached out to her old fourth-grade teacher at Morrison Elementary in Braintree, Massachusetts.
“I hadn’t talked to my teacher since I was nine,” Twombly says. “I interviewed her in my old classroom, and she still had all our pictures on the wall. We talked about teaching students with disabilities, which is a much bigger issue than when I was a student. And that actually became the focus of our group’s presentation to iRobot.”
After spending most of the semester conducting interviews, doing research, and sending out surveys, most of the class groups landed on their specific presentation topics only in the final weeks before presenting to iRobot.
“In such a short amount of time, how do you compile all your information in a way that covers it all, that’s concise enough to go into the research you’ve uncovered, and then allows you to get to the recommendation?” Benetreau asks.
And yet, every group managed to impress iRobot, not only with their findings but their thoroughness and level of professionalism.
“What I appreciated the most was that, instead of looking at this from a very high level, the students chose a different way and went deeper,” says senior product manager Tim Angle. “We got nuance and detail, both positive and not so positive. There were some really cool ideas that the students presented, some of which we’ll pursue further and some that are probably not directions we’re going to go. But that’s still important learning. The project was very valuable for both us and for the students.”
iRobot will start a new project with students in the Marketing program in spring 2020.